Illinois’ COVID death toll nears 37,000 3 years into coronavirus pandemic
Mountainous bar graphs of daily case numbers can illustrate how quickly COVID-19 swept across Illinois in 2020. But they can’t capture the isolation felt by people in Chicago and beyond who were told to stay at home in the early days of the pandemic.
Hospital admission figures reflect the waves of patients who have crowded into coronavirus wards with serious illness. But they don’t reveal anything about the exhaustion of health care workers who have switched to new careers.
And while the statewide death toll of at least 36,494 provides a devastating indication of what the virus has ripped away over the past three years, that number doesn’t approach the full breadth of grief rippling out from each loss.
Statistics don’t tell the whole story of the pandemic. But experts say the data they’ve collected provides vital insights into how the outbreak has hit different communities — and what eeryone should think about as we learn to live with the virus permanently.
“This past winter shows we may be getting to a point where we can make it through a year without crushing the health care system,” said Dr. Arti Barnes, chief medical officer of the Illinois Department of Public Health. “That’s one of the first optimistic signs that we’re reaching a point where we’re starting to heal.”
The scars remain vivid.
More than 4 million COVID infections have been confirmed in the state since early 2020. The actual number is likely at least several times higher, experts say, since millions of cases have gone undiagnosed, and the official figure doesn’t include at-home tests.
More than 20,000 people a day were testing positive, on average, at the height of the omicron variant surge in late 2021, according to state figures.
Hospitals across the state were treating more than 7,000 coronavirus patients a night during the omicron crisis, a burden even greater than the first two waves that overwhelmed the health care system in 2020.
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“During the worst of it, it was like a mass-casualty disaster on a daily basis,” said Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, chief operating officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health.
Daily death counts hit a vicious apex in December 2020, just before the first vaccines were deployed. During the period Dec. 5-11, 2020, state averaged more than 150 deaths a day.
By comparison, the state is averaging about 1,300 confirmed cases a day over the past week, with fewer than 900 COVID hospitalizations and about nine daily fatalities.
That improvement — as well the fact that the larger omicron case surge didn’t result in more deaths than in the fall of 2020 — offer testament to the effectiveness of vaccination, experts say.
“Across the board, we see that those who are vaccinated are proportionately less likely to end up in the hospital,” Barnes said. “And, if they do, they’re more likely to walk out of the hospital.”
Each successive wave added to a death toll that’s now approaching 37,000 — roughly the equivalent of wiping out the population of Calumet City.
The Chicago area accounts for almost half that toll, with about 8,000 in the city and more than 7,500 in suburban Cook County.
It appears that deaths have hit different racial groups almost in line with the state’s demographics: White residents account for about 64% of COVID fatalities, Black residents make up about 18%, and Hispanic residents about 14%.
But the disparities were much wider in the early stages of the pandemic. From March through December 2020, the COVID death rate for Hispanic residents was 2.5 times higher than it was for white residents, while Black lives were claimed at a rate twice as high, state figures show.
Death rates shrunk overall by about half through 2021, but the virus still killed Black and Hispanic residents at a rate about 1.5 times higher than white residents.
While death rates continued to fall last year, Black residents died at a rate about 1.5 times higher than those for Hispanic or white residents.
The trends have changed in the first few months of 2023, though, with white residents dying at a rate almost twice as high as the Hispanic community and slightly greater than that for Black residents.
The disparities remain acute on the South Side and West Side and in Cook County’s south and southwest suburbs, where vaccinations have lagged, Hasbrouck said.
“The numbers tell you it’s a simple ‘before and after,’ ” he said. “There have been a lot of preventable deaths since we introduced the vaccines. We need more people to get up to date with vaccines to keep lessening the carnage.”